Cities are essentially seen as economic entities that generate wealth, provide employment and a quality of life to enable enterprise. However, they also have a stellar role to play in social transformation because of their ability to bring a lot of people together and marinate them in a pot that modifies human institutions. One of these is caste. The process of urbanisation, therefore, if carried out in a planned, sustainable and inclusive manner, can potentially help India mitigate the impact of all-pervasive casteism that is crippling India’s rise as a global power. Despite the fact that the air of liberalism is stronger in the urban environment, embedded caste inequities that are rooted in the Indian psyche have a penchant to play out in different forms. But cities do provide communities greater mobility and variety where relationships do not get established either merely or primarily on the basis of caste.
Unlike a village, which provides a highly localised worldview and a fertile soil in which caste can flourish, cities possess the innate characteristic to rob caste of its natural feudal environment and put it in a vibrant, multi-faceted and volatile situation in which it might suffocate. Amit Ahuja, of the Department of Political Science at the University of California, states that “urbanisation undermines caste”. He points out that the “relative anonymity” of an individual’s identity in a city makes it difficult for “rules of purity and pollution” to be observed and enforced in the public sphere. In a city, buses and trains do not segregate people on the basis of caste. Jobs are distributed on the basis of expertise and ability and not decided by caste. They freely allow the abandonment of traditional caste-based occupations and urban workplaces mix up castes. Educational institutions, irrespective of caste, seat students in the same class and on the same benches.
Since there are larger opportunities to learn and study, girls and boys spend more time in schools and colleges and the age of marriage gets pushed up to allow more education and preparation for the job market. Opportunities of inter-mixing multiply at study, at workplace, in travel, in eating places and in cinemas. These opportunities allow relationships to flower and blossom, allowing independent decision-making – including the decision to choose a life partner – many times without reference to the elders in the family.
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The above assertions are supported by data emanating from cities and from more urbanised States. It is true that rural migration to urban areas does not abruptly erase social prejudices of caste. These get carried into cities and probably metamorphose into different shapes. But cities and their compulsions loosen the hold of caste through a variety of contributory factors. It has been found that the urban middle class, once a preserve of the upper castes, has become more diverse with the gradual entry of backward castes and Dalits. According to a study done by researchers from the Princeton University in 2011, it was found that inter-caste marriages were the highest in the western region (17 per cent). The more urbanised States (barring Tamil Nadu) displayed a higher rate of inter-caste marriages than their predominantly rural counterparts. For example, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka, Punjab and Haryana that are more urbanised States reported 17.7 per cent, 13.7 per cent, 16.5 per cent, 22.5 per cent and 17.3 per cent inter-caste marriages, respectively; whereas Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh reported 4.7 per cent, 8.6 per cent, 2.3 per cent and 3.5 per cent inter-caste marriages, respectively. This is a welcome sign and it does point out that cities help inter-caste marriages.
The marriage market reflects this change. In 1970, only 1.5 per cent of matrimonial ads published in the national dailies belonged to backward castes and Dalits. This number had increased to 10 per cent by 2010. In cities, the search for partners differs from that in villages. People in the middle class shift from family and caste networks to friends and professional networks. Additionally, India’s rapidly multiplying smart phones and the march of digital technology is happily aiding this process. Today, some of the online matrimonial websites displaying personal profiles underplay caste, while new dating apps are moving away from the old practice of mentioning caste. The state itself is encouraging inter-caste marriages by providing cash rewards to inter-caste couples.
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Caste stands out as the most demeaning social segregation that Indians have practised for centuries. Today, constitutionally and legally, caste stands abandoned and outlawed. But its roots have gone so deep in Indian society that it continues to be a social reality, still observed by a majority of India’s citizens. Caste continues to drive most choices. This takes the most visible form in respect of marriages. Marriages outside caste have been violently opposed leading in some cases to honour killings. “Caste”, as Ambedkar said, “is a mental state, therefore it cannot be eradicated through constitutional measures alone”. There can be no two opinions that this dreaded phenomenon has had the most debilitating impact on the onward march of India. It is absolutely vital, therefore, in the interest of India’s progress that this practice is ground to dust.
The Indian caste system is seen by sociologists to be standing on six legs – segmental division of society, hierarchy, restriction of feeding and social intercourse, disabilities and privileges of different sections, lack of unrestricted choice of occupation and restriction of marriage. Sociologists also argue that, of these six, it is the restriction of marriage that props up all the other five. The removal of the restriction of marriage through inter-caste marriages will bring down the caste system like a pack of cards.
It is on this account that Ambedkar had welcomed the phenomenon of inter-caste marriage and called it “revolutionary” as it directly attacks the most germane characteristic of caste. That feature is endogamy, on which the edifice of caste stands. Once endogamy (i.e. marrying within one’s own caste) is attacked and destroyed, the entire fortification of the caste system will crumble. In 1936, Ambedkar had opined, “I am convinced that the real remedy is inter-marriage. Fusion of blood can alone create the feeling of being kith and kin, and unless this feeling of kinship, of being kindred, becomes paramount, the separatist feeling — the feeling of being aliens — created by Caste will not vanish. Where society is already well-knit by other ties, marriage is an ordinary incident of life. But where society is cut asunder, marriage as a binding force becomes a matter of urgent necessity. The real remedy for breaking Caste is inter-marriage. Nothing else will serve as the solvent of Caste.”
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But inter-caste marriages are not easy to promote. A study conducted by the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) and the University of Maryland some years ago found that only five percent of Indians have entered into inter-caste marriages. This has, of recent, been reported to be around 10 per cent. Quite clearly, the demise of the caste system is not round the corner and caste fault lines remain strong in social and political life.
It is clear that caste is a nasty virus, still entrenched heavily in the rural areas, playing havoc with the lives of men and women in Indian society and refusing to go despite the antidotes of the Indian Constitution. These get carried into Indian cities but are made to struggle against a set of unfavourable situations that promote caste-atrophy. The silver lining, without doubt, are the Indian cities and the growing urbanisation. Push in urbanisation faster in the nation. That will push caste out of it.
The author is Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai. Views are personal.
This article was first published on ORF.